I was dozing, halfway between sleep and waking, thinking about the Professor, trying to recall as many of our interactions as possible. In case there were no more. He'd had me down to his basement laboratory on several occasions, but I remembered one particular time: I was bringing him a crate of empty vials because his supply was running low. There was a full cauldron of some potion or other, ready to be decanted, and another one at a delicate stage which needed his full attention. I quietly took care of the finished potion, and got it ready for delivery; then stood to the side, watching him work.
Looking back, I couldn't remember all the details, but what I did remember was a feeling of calm and belonging, as if I had been invited into one of his most private moments. That might sound odd: given that he'd been the Potions master at Hogwarts for many years, one wouldn't necessarily think of his making potions as a private thing. But in retrospect, I couldn't recall a single instance of him actually preparing a potion in front of the class. He had demonstrated individual steps, such as how to crush beetle eyes properly, or using the twelve points of a clock to map out a stirring pattern. But the actual act of brewing seemed to be something sacred, a priestly ritual reserved only for the eyes of the initiated. And there I was, watching him, being allowed to act as a sort of acolyte.
I'd had the feeling he was very aware of my presence as well, and that it didn't irritate him. Quite the opposite: I had the impression he was - well, trying to impress me might be taking things a bit too far. It wasn't that he was showing off, either. More like he wanted me to think well of him.
When he was finished with the second potion, he came over to see what I'd done with the first. After ascertaining that all the vials were filled to exactly the same level, and all the seals made perfectly, he nodded and caught my eye and pronounced the job 'adequate'. My heart fluttered, as that seemingly underwhelming word carried a note of acknowledgment which warmed me more than any O in his classes would have done. As if he was saying I was all right, I could be a part of his life. Maybe I was reading too much into it. It was likely all nothing more than wishful thinking.
I wanted him to think of me as a part of his life, though, as much as he was a large part of mine. I looked forward to every visit, with both anxiety and excitement. Every time our eyes met, there was a crackling of possibility, of questioning, that passed between us. Or had I only imagined it? Was I as deluded as poor Susan Bones?
And then air was rushing past me, pummelling my body, and there was something thick and warm wrapped around my head, over my face, and I couldn't breathe. At first, I half thought this was nothing more than a dream, and tried to wake up, when I realised what was happening: I was falling.
I clawed at the Thermal Blanket, which had got twisted up with my cloak and was now throttling me mercilessly in the blast of air. In my panic to get my nose and mouth free, I nearly discarded the broom I was still clutching in one hand. It was a good thing my survival instinct remained vigilant even as my mind had wandered. In the nick of time, I remembered what I was holding the broom for, and I tried to shove it down between my legs, fighting against the pressure of the atmosphere coming at me at a hundred and twenty miles an hour.
After what seemed like forever, but must only have been a few seconds, the blanket flew free, and my breath was slammed out of me a second time as the full impact of the wind hit me in the face. At the same time, my field of vision now cleared, I registered that the houses below me were no longer dark spots between the foliage, but actual, three-dimensional shapes, separated by perpendicular strips lined with lights and dotted with moving cars. I'd barely had time to realise I was approaching said houses and cars at an alarming rate when I noticed I was already below the level of some of the higher buildings around me; if I'd been a couple of streets farther to the left, I could have hit one.
Acting more out of reflex than skill, I managed to get one leg on either side of the broom and pull up, hard. The bottom dropped out of my stomach as my trajectory adjusted from straight down to horizontal. My foot skimmed the top of one of the trees lining the street, and I nearly did a roll-over avoiding a second one. Whose idea was it to plant trees in the middle of a city anyway? I couldn't gain enough control of the broom to get out of the way of the traffic sign that suddenly loomed up at me out of the darkness, however, and I slammed sideways into it, then bounced off and hit the roof of a parked car. I lost my grip on the broom and fell off onto the pavement, where I rolled over several times until my momentum used itself up. I had landed.
I lay there gasping for a bit, until I realised I was still alive. I'd had the wind knocked out of me, my hands were scraped pretty badly, and there was a sharp pain in my right knee, but I could move it. The rucksack still strapped to my chest, along with my thick cloak, had done their part to protect me.
I took stock of my surroundings. It looked like a business district in a derelict part of some mid-size city. It was still dark, but sunrise couldn't be too far off. I was lying on the pavement in front of a darkened shopfront with a peeling 'Closing Down Sale' sign in the window. I couldn't see any other people around at this early hour. So much the better.
I pulled myself to my feet. My knee was already swelling, and shaky when I tried to put weight on it. It didn't seem to be anything too serious, but I certainly wasn't going to be able to walk anywhere. I spotted Ron's broom lying a short distance away. I reached into the inner pocket of my cloak for my wand, and was relieved to find that it hadn't been dislodged by either my fall or my pathetic excuse for a landing.
"Accio Broom!" It shot into my hand, stinging as it hit the cuts on my palm. I certainly wasn't going to fly it again. I didn't know where I was, and even if I did, I didn't feel up to sitting on a broom for any lengthy flights. I was also not sure about Apparating at this point, given the levels of adrenaline and dopamine pumping through my system.
There was only one thing for me to do. I sent off a Patronus to both Harry and Ron, letting them know I was all right and where I was headed, then hobbled out to the kerb, and stuck my wand out. I didn't have to wait long. With a sudden whooshing of air and screeching of brakes, a purple triple-decker bus materialised before me.
The conductor, a long-faced young man with his cap pulled low over his eyes, intoned, "Welcome aboard the Knight Bus."
It didn't take long before we arrived in front of the Ministry. I felt measurably more stable, after a strong shot of hot chocolate and a sticky bun (made fresh by the conductor's mother, I was told). I'd cleaned up my hands and healed the scrapes as best I could, and made an attempt to order my clothes and hair, as much as was possible riding a conveyance whose driver had never heard of the concept of 'gradual deceleration'.
During our journey, I considered what might have precipitated my sudden fall, and came to the conclusion that Harry and his curse breakers must have cancelled the spell rather than reversed it, so that instead of being returned to where I started, I had been simply dropped in mid-air. It was an understandable error, especially given they hadn't known the initial incantation to work with. Still, it had been quite a dangerous gamble, and I meant to give Harry a stern talking-to.
As I debarked, I saw there was already a welcoming committee standing out front. Harry and Ron I'd expected, but the sight of the tall, black-clad Professor hovering uncertainly behind them threw me for quite a loop. Several possible explanations for his presence shot through my head, each more distressing than the last: he'd come to bail Susan out; he was here to press charges against me for failing to deliver his potions on time; Harry had had to rescue him after he'd been locked up somewhere by his psychotic P.T.; Harry had summoned him in order to tell him the whole sordid story, including the reason the spell had worked on me.
As I was engulfed by my two best friends hugging me and exclaiming at my miraculous return, I couldn't take my eyes off Professor Snape. And neither, it appeared, could he keep his off me. It was as if there were an invisible cord tying our gazes to each other. There was such an intensity of emotion in his eyes, but I couldn't tell whether it was anger, disappointment, or something else.
Harry must have noticed I wasn't paying much attention to him and Ron, because he leaned down and whispered in my ear, "He was rather upset when Susan ended the spell abruptly like that." I was taken aback. So it hadn't been incompetent Aurors, but a real attempt at getting rid of me... permanently. I was dying to know why the Professor had been present at the moment Susan cancelled the spell, and more generally, where he had been this whole time, but I couldn't ask anything, as Harry was still speaking: "Nearly killed her with his bare hands. He was beside himself until we got your Patronus."
I tried to make sense of what Harry was saying. Surely not that Professor Snape cared about me? He would react similarly with anyone, wouldn't he? If Kingsley had been in danger, or Professor McGonagall... Wouldn't he? I managed to tear my eyes away from the Professor, who still hadn't moved, to look at Harry.
"What do you mean?" I whispered.
"He's got it for you, Hermione," Ron said glumly, from my other side. "Wouldn't have thought he had it in him. Harry already told him he could go home, but he won't until he's seen you're safe. His words."
My eyes returned to the Professor. He looked most displeased. I didn't think the boys were interpreting things right. They'd never been much good at emotional stuff, after all. On the other hand, why would Professor Snape still be standing there, staring at me? I didn't dare hope; I'd only end up looking like a fool.
"Go on," Harry said with a sigh. "You have my blessing." He nudged me forward.
Half in a daze, I hobbled toward the steps. Immediately, the Professor's blank expression turned to one of alarm, and he limped down the steps to meet me halfway. I wished he would use a cane, but it didn't do any good suggesting it.
"You're injured!" he exclaimed, reaching out to steady me with his hand lightly supporting my elbow.
"It's nothing, just a bit bruised," I assured him. "I had a bit of a rough landing." I hefted the broom, which I was still carrying. His eyes on me were hot enough to boil Euphoria Elixir. Didn't he feel that? I laughed nervously. "Aren't we a pair? My knee, your leg..." I trailed off, feeling that once again I'd put my foot in my mouth.
True to my fears, he scowled at being reminded of his injury. But he didn't release my arm. "Was this Potter's idea of a 'contingency plan'?" he demanded in disgust. "Giving you a broom and wishing you 'happy landings'?"
I was trying to think of some defence when I realised with horror that there were stiff, dark stains all down one side of his robes.
"My God, Professor! You've been hurt!" I tossed the broom down and grabbed his hand. It was covered with thick, brown streaks: dried blood. Trying to discover the source of the injury, I pushed his sleeve up, but he pulled his hand back and shook his sleeve back down.
"It isn't mine," he said in a flat tone. "Healer Bones made a dramatic attempt at gaining attention. Due to Potter's quick actions and despite my overwrought interference, she did not succeed." Overwrought? The Professor? Because Susan had got hurt? My stomach was doing all sorts of unpleasant things.
"Is she all right?" I asked carefully, trying to read what was behind his words. Was he a concerned lover? Or an innocent bystander?
"She was alive when I last saw her. I presume she will make a full recovery."
"That's good," I said. An awkward silence descended.
"I am ... sorry this happened," he said finally, in a stiff and formal manner.
"It's not your fault," I rushed to assure him. "You didn't know anything about it." I paused. "Right?" I raised my eyes to his, trying not to look too anxious.
He frowned, probably at my stupidity. "I knew nothing, Miss Granger. Nothing at all. If I had known... anything... " I had the distinct feeling there were more layers of meaning in his words than met the eye. His hand tightened on my elbow. Oh, yes, it was still there. I wasn't about to complain. "Still, I admit that I am in some way culpable." His voice was low and smooth, and I was getting goosebumps.
I started to protest, but he held his hand up. "If I had had any inkling of Healer Bones' delusional feelings, I would have ended our association immediately."
"Your association," I repeated, dumbly. Did he mean personal or professional?
"Her engagement as my physical therapist," he clarified, and now I thought I detected a hint of amusement behind his cold words.
"Of course. Yes, of course. Obviously," I babbled. "I just thought... Well, she said some things. I didn't think... but then I wasn't sure..."
"Miss Granger. Take deep breaths."
I complied. Did I mention I was about to melt under the force of his eyes?
"As I said," he continued, "whatever scenario she imagined was entirely fictitious. The only reason I agreed to allow her to treat me was because I thought it was what you, and others, wanted."
"I never..." I protested breathlessly. "I mean, yes, I did think it would be a good idea, but not-"
"Miss Granger," he interrupted me again. "I understand completely. However, as a result of this incident, I have decided to make some changes. For one thing, my life will no longer be governed by committee. I know that Minerva, Kingsley, Molly, and others" -here his eye flicked over to Harry and Ron, who were doing their best to fade into the background without entirely abandoning me- "have only acted according to their conscience and done what they thought was in my best interest. However, I am a grown man, and I will not be coddled and cocooned. I am taking charge of my own affairs and excising all unwanted influence."
My heart sank. That was the end of our 'association' as well, then. "Yes, sir," I said, putting on a brave face. "I'm terribly sorry I wasn't able to deliver your potions yesterday. If you'd allow me, as a last service, I'd very much like to go to the client and explain what happened-"
The Professor's eyebrows drew down in a dark line of annoyance. "You will do no such thing. As a last or any other kind of service. You are not my house-elf." My disappointment was now getting competition from a rising indignation. Honestly, it was one thing to want to take charge of his life, quite another to be so dismissive and rude. "I will be visiting the client myself this morning," he said. My eye drifted unintentionally to his stained clothing. "Yes," he remarked with a smirk, "perhaps I should go home and change first. As should you." I became suddenly aware of what a fright I must look. And smell. "And then, Miss Granger..." His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. Was he... nervous? "I should be honoured if you would join me for dinner this evening. I believe we have much to discuss."
Now I was confused. "I'm sorry, sir, I... I thought you didn't want anything to do with any of us any more."
"And I thought you were supposed to be the clever one," he growled. "I said I was removing all unwanted influences from my life. A very... astute friend of yours" -the admission seemed to pain him- "suggested that if I had paid you the respect you were due, this entire fiasco might not have happened." He inclined his head slightly. "I believe it is time for us to change the parameters of our interactions. I have taken advantage of you for far too long."
"Oh no, I was happy to-"
"I realise this." He leaned down and spoke low in my ear, close enough that the ends of his hair brushed against my cheek. "But do you not think that perhaps, on a different footing, a greater happiness might ensue... Miss Granger?"
My heart stopped. My insides turned to jelly. My brain completely shut down.
He straightened. "Potter! Weasley!" he snapped, his terminal scowl firmly in place again. "Do you think you could see to it that Miss Granger arrives home safely without sustaining further injury?"
Footsteps approached from somewhere behind me. "We'll take care of her, Professor," I heard Harry say through the blood pounding in my ears.
"We always have," Ron added stoutly, and an arm went around my waist.
"I will call for you at eight," the Professor said as he relinquished my arm. I sagged against Ron and nodded mutely. Without breaking eye contact with me, the Professor stepped back, then, in a twirl of black robes, disappeared.
"You okay, Hermione?" Ron asked, giving me a squeeze to see if I was still responsive.
"What happened?" I said weakly.
"I think we were just witness to someone being swept off their feet, Ron," Harry said.
Oh. Is that what that was. Yes. I see. Eight o'clock then. The enormity of what had just transpired began to hit. My sore knee gave way. I was glad for Ron's sturdy body supporting me. "Oh God," I moaned.
"What is it?" Ron and Harry both asked together.
I looked from one concerned face to the other and admitted tremulously, "I haven't a thing to wear."